Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan Volume 2
by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Cover Artist: Lee Moyer
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596067066
Date: 30 November 2015 List Price $45.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
To say that Caitlín R. Kiernan is one of the best writers of horror short fiction writing today is to do a disservice to this remarkable author. For one thing, while almost all of her work has dark elements, it is far from being confined to horror as it is traditionally understood. For another, she is not just one of the best writers in this subfield, but in all of science fiction and fantasy, if not beyond. Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea is the second volume of the best of Kiernan’s short fiction, taking us from 2004 to the present. I deeply regret missing my opportunity to pick up the first volume, which is out of print and selling for $400 or more on the secondary market, so if this volume appeals to you don't wait too long to pick it up.
Kiernan is deeply influenced by the weird tradition, most notably by H.P. Lovecraft. Of course, work influenced by Lovecraft is a dime a dozen these days, with pastiches and hat-tips to his work abounding in horror fiction. But few authors manage to capture the emotional heart of Lovecraft's work--the crushing vastness of history and space, how it outstrips all of our attempts to confine or understand it, the realization of which shows us how tiny and transitory we are. Even fewer authors manage to not only match Lovecraft at his best in evoking this cosmic awe, but also add their own distinctive spin to this central message. Much of the unease and eeriness created by Lovecraft's work is directed at outsiders--minorities, women who seek their own power or authority, the mad, and isolated. Kiernan takes up these elements, but transforms them by bringing a sympathy for the outsider villains of the tale. The incursions of the inexplicable have their source in us, not some outsider group that we can hope to defeat, or at least blame. Stories like "Houndwife" or "Bradbury Weather" or "Pickman's Other Model" deny us that safety that comes from distance, locating the alien and incomprehensible in our own lives, our own flesh.
Not all of Kiernan's work draws directly on Lovecraft. The stories in this collection display the full range of her talent. "Pony" and "One Tree Hill (The World as Cataclysm)" feel more like classic ghost stories. Not because either contain ghosts, per se. It's just that the uncanny here is more hidden, a matter of feel and subtle suggestion. The supernatural here is a glimpse, that appalls and draws us in in equal measure. We are left unsure of what exactly has happened, and equally unsure if we would dare to know better.
Some stories are lighter. "The Steam Dancer (1896)" is a steampunk story, and triumphant, in a quiet way. "The Sea Troll's Daughter" is a darkly humorous gender-swapped loose retelling of Beowulf. "The Maltese Unicorn" is solidly Noir, with added demons. Not a single story in this collection left me unaffected.
Lastly, no review of Kiernan would be complete without mentioning the beauty of her writing. Her prose is perfectly crafted, sometimes using obscure and evocative vocabulary, in other places transforming pedestrian language into poetry by the use of pace and timing. As S.T. Joshi puts it perfectly in the forward, her prose is sensuous. Her writing rewards careful attention. Her characters often reveal their depths as much by where they hesitate, what they shy away from, as by what they explicitly say.
I cannot recommend Kiernan's work, and this volume in particular, highly enough. Anyone with any interest in weird fiction owes it to themselves to read it. Indeed, anyone with an interest in short fiction should check it out.